Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 1, “Origin and Ancestry”

My dear friend,

How do you explain the contradictions among the four Gospels? Why does Mark say one thing, and Matthew and Luke quite another, while John (left) seems to be speaking from another planet?

Romano Guardini takes up this question in the first chapter of his book The Lord, examining how the four evangelists explain Jesus’s origins and ancestry. It’s an important question to me, these apparent contradictions. I remember religion classes back at school where, under the watchful eye of Mr. Brookfield, among others, we used to interpret religious texts the way we interpreted Crime and Punishment under Ploegstra or Moby Dick in Gray’s AmLit class. We came up with some pretty wild stuff, those of us not relying exclusively on Cliffs Notes.

If all we need is the Bible, as most Protestants claim, what prevents scriptural interpretation from being all over the map, like twelve different adolescent voices, some still finding their range, around a Harkness table?

This is one reason I am comfortable inside the Catholic Church, where two thousand years of tradition, founded on the Apostles, the Fathers, the saints, and what we call the Magisterium, provide a unified teaching and interpretive structure.

Guardini begins with John, who begins famously with the Word: “In the beginning was the Word. . . He was in the beginning with God.” John looks for Jesus’s origins in “the mystery of God’s existence.” At the heart of this mystery is the Trinity: God the Father or Speaker, Christ the Son or Word, and what passes between them, the love of each for the other, the Divine Dialog (my term), the Holy Spirit. John asks us to contemplate the Incarnation—that the Word was “made flesh,” that God intervened in human history. This theme—God becoming part of our history—is one Guardini will return to frequently.

While Mark says nothing of the Incarnation, beginning instead with John the Baptist and then letting the adult Jesus walk on stage, direct from Nazareth, Matthew and Luke offer genealogies of the child Jesus—different ones! Guardini offers three possible reasons why Matthew stresses the lineage of the law (ending in Joseph), and Luke the lineage of the blood (ending in Mary). Both evangelists are concerned with “the course taken by his blood through history”—that word again.

Like me, you probably roll your eyes at that long genealogy that begins St. Matthew’s Gospel. Guardini, contemplating them, has a different reaction. “How their names sing!” he says. (RG is quite poetic, and his English translator doesn’t miss a beat.) Guardini notes that, while they represent different branches of Jesus’s family tree, the genealogies “possess per se a high degree of probability,” since “the ancient races had a very true memory.” The Jews kept their ancestral records in temple archives.

Guardini begins and ends the chapter contemplating what Jesus might have thought of his own origins and ancestry. The adult Jesus said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I am,” a theological answer like John’s. But “in the long quiet years in Nazareth,” before He emerged on the public stage, Jesus “may well have pondered” the names in his own genealogy.

Guardini: “Deeply he must have felt what history is: the greatness of it, the power, confusion, wretchedness, darkness, and evil underlying even his own existence and pressing him from all sides to receive it into his heart that he might answer for it at the feet of God.”

It is interesting to think how I view my own origins. We Bulls are pretty interested in genealogy. My family tree looks different when viewed through my father or my mother. I have only three cousins on my father’s side and I know no one relative from his mother’s line; meanwhile, on Mom’s side I have eighteen cousins and more relatives within a couple generations than I will ever even meet.

There are a couple of notable Catholics on Mom’s side two. Dad’s tree is filled with Methodists. What accounts for my own conversion? Genealogy? DNA? Certainly not home-schooling. Grace, maybe?

When I think of my origins, “where I come from,” my life itself originates in a mystery. Like the zen koan that goes, “Show me your original face before you were born.” Going Buddhist here at the end of this post is not completely random. One of the surprises of Guardini, which we’ll get to, is that he speaks highly of Buddha, Socrates, and other great spiritual people from other traditions.

But enough for one day, my dear old friend. Tomorrow, chapter 2, “The Mother.”

As always,

This series of letters continues here with chapter 2.


  1. Read it... loved it
    Now I wanna buy the book.

  2. Glad to hear it, my friend! There's a Kindle edition for $11.


If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.